The recent general elections in Ireland continue the trend seen in Greece, Portugal and Spain – citizens have had enough of Troika-dictated austerity politics and will vote out any goverment that implements it. Smaller parties who participate in such coalitions (in this case the Irish Labour Party) are devastated.
The Fine Gael / Labour coalition government went into the election of a ‘protect the recovery’ slogan. This recovery, and that is presented as shining example of the success of Troika policies, is purely a statistical one, and won based on highly dubious statistics. (Ireland’s GDP etc. are heavily distorted by the shameless facilitation of transnational tax evasion.) The incumbents discovered to their horror that the Irish people didn’t set any store by the figures, and chose instead to base their electoral decisions on their own experiences of cuts in services, stagnating wages, precarious jobs and a return to mass emigration by the young and not so young.
The FG/Labour government continued Troika policies even after they exited the “bailout” supervision with great enthusiasm and even went into the election on a tax-cutting manifesto. The voters’ reply was to switch to parties of the left who were committed to a change of course, and to one of the conservative party that promised to reverse some of the privatisations and cuts.
The collapse of the coalition was thoroughly deserved and caught a biased and blinkered Irish media by surprise. Especially unexpected (by the main stream media) was the collapse of the junior party in the coalition – Irish Labour.
So where are we after the elections?
Class politics has returned to Ireland after a long vacation with a vengeance. Where once Ireland was dominated by two conservative parties, there is now a significant left with a significant electoral footprint. But being the left, it is of course divided into several factions.
Among these forces the Anti-Austerity Alliance / People before Profit (a front for two often bitterly feuding Trotskyist parties) did remarkably well in urban areas on a solid socialist platform giving them six TDs (members of the Irish parliament). A new party called the Social Democrats, comprising defectors from the Labour Party, did well to take three seats in the Dáil, having only formed six months ago.
Among a raft of independents a number of solid Left Independents did well under the “Right to Change” umbrella. Another part of this umbrella was Sinn Féin who increased their representation to 23 TDs, and a first-preference vote of about 14%, making them the biggest anti-Austerity group in the Dáil. Their first preference votes were down significantly on the European elections.
Sinn Féin grew out of the political wing of the Provisional IRA, who agreed a ceasefire and decommissioning of weapons 18 years ago and SF has since grown to be a ruling party in the somewhat devolved government in Northern Ireland (still part of the UK), and a significant party of opposition in the Republic of Ireland. They played a cautious election and were often outflanked – at least rhetorically – on the left by Fianna Fáil, of all people. See below.
Sinn Féin’s relationship to class politics is often ambiguous, despite the fact that there have been numerous socialist republicans and many in the party are instinctively at least social democrat. However it is a tightly disciplined party that follows the line of the current leadership, who are from a nationalist and militarist background. The party tried to present itself as a non-threatening alternative during the election and may well have suffered at the polls from a lack of economic and political radicalism.
It was a good election for social movements formed around opposing water taxes and privatisation and regressive property taxes. All these measures forced through by the last government are looking as if they will be reversed or at least watered down.
The biggest surprise of the election for participants on the left was the resurgence of the Soldiers of Destiny (Fianna Fáil). This party had ruled, with some breaks to give Fine Gael a short turn at the wheel, pretty much continuously since the 1930s. It specialises like no other Irish party in the three Cs – clientelism, cronyism and corruption – and has consequently deep economic and political roots from the Irish oligarchy down to party clients at a local level, especially in rural Ireland.
However in 2008 they, together with the Irish Green Party, were in Government when the first acute phase of the current capitalist crisis occurred. During the lates 90s and early 2000s they had pumped up a property bubble in collaboration with their cronies in the local banks, who themselves were working to make a quick speculative profit for the likes of Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas. When the bubble burst, they acted in the interests of local and international elites and converted their losses into public debt. New national debt, to the tune of 40 Billion euros, or about €40,000 per family, had now to be serviced.
Irish national debt had stood at relatively low levels of about 70% of nominal GDP and now increased to a level that was unsustainable during the high point of the crisis. Given that the government were ideologically not inclined to oppose either the EU or international finance capital, rule by Troika, i.e. EU, ECB & IMF became inevitable. The effects of the insane deflationary and demand-suppressing Troika policies on the Irish economy were predictably bad and Fianna Fáil consequently got their worst result ever the general elections of 2011.
Political victims have short memories, it seams, and the slumbering vampire has risen from the tomb during this year, with Fianna Fáil more than doubling their representation from 2011, with 45 seats and 25% of the first preference votes. Fine Gael got slightly more at 50 seats and 25.5% of the first preference vote.
This leaves the only viable coalition one between the two conservative parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. However, were they to do so, the raison d’etre of both – namely not being the other conservative party – would evaporate. Fianna Fáil are utterly without principles but they are tactically acute, and have effectively rejected this possibility. They realise that the role of primary opposition would pass to Sinn Féin, to the latter’s benefit. FF’s interest is to continue to present itself as a significant alternative.
The situation is still quite fluid but FF seem to heading towards supporting a minority goverment of FG and others, and waiting for the right time to force another general election.
Hence it is essential for SF and the further left to steer a course well to the left of an opportunist FF.
The media bias during the Irish election was something to behold. From the newspapers controlled by Denis O’Brien (Ireland’s two-bit version of Rupert Murdoch) to the state broadcaster RTE, the pattern was to boost the current government and especially the Labour party, ignore the further left, and attack Sinn Féin at every opportunity.
The Irish Labour party were punished for their participation in a pro-Troika government and had a disastrous election. They went into government in 2011 promising to stand up the Troika, only to cave into them and surpass them in their attacks on the working people. The Labour vote fell from a first preference vote of nearly 20% to under 7%. From 37 seats in 2011 their representation in the Dáil fell to 7 seats, and two of them only by the skin of their teeth. Whether they can survive as a party is dubious, given that the Social Democrats are likely to pick up many disaffected party members and voters.
This leaves the Irish trades union movement in a difficult position. The Irish Labour party was founded by James Connolly, James Larkin and others as a political expression of the trades union movement. In the last election some trades unions were recommending a Labour vote. Will the trades unions continue to support an ineffective and probably fatally injured party? Or should they now support a broader range of pro-worker parties and independants?
And the Irish Greens now have two seats, up from none. These are the same Greens who could have stopped the fatal bank bailout of 2008, but chose not to; whether out of cluelessness or gutlessness, we’ll probably never know. Short memories, indeed.
Ireland will go through a period of political instability, possibly with a second election in the near future. Class politics is back in Ireland. This represents opportunites for the Irish left but it remains divided; and apart from disunity, the threat of faux-leftist populism from Fianna Fáil is the biggest danger to its growth.